When I first got my job here at UNCW teaching Native American history, a terrible thought briefly crossed my mind. I thought what great moral authority I would have with the students if I was an Indian. Since I’d been studying Southern Plains Indians, I figured if I could say that I was a Caddo or a Comanche, I’d have stature, prestige, and my own little following of students. Fortunately, it took about two seconds for that idea to pass. Clearer thinking made me see how wrong that would be on several levels. First off, it would have been a blatant lie. I was not an Indian on any level – not raised as one, didn’t have a card making me a citizen of any federal or state recognized Indian nation, I had never claimed it, didn’t have the genetic makeup of American Indians, and I didn’t follow any cultural aspects associated with Native Americans. There goes moral authority. Second, trying to pass myself off as something I wasn’t would have been academically dishonest. A simple phone call by anyone to the Comanche or Caddo tribal headquarters would have ratted out my lie. And that would have been a career killer. Third, it would have been an insult to Native American people. To falsely appropriate all the good and the bad that has happened and happens to them is immoral. To falsely advance myself on their backs was something my conscience would not allow. Thank you, Conscience, for working overtime on me. So while I have a great respect for American Indians and their culture, I’m not a “wannabe Indian,” just a white guy who studies Native American history.
But the pull of the “wannabe” is strong. Many people out there wannabe Indians. It’s probably the question I get asked the most : “I have Indian blood in me, so how do I become a member of a tribe?” Nine times out of ten it’s Cherokee blood they claim.
Some of these may be actual Indian people whose ancestors, for many possible reasons, got left off the rolls or moved away and so lost that tribal connection. Those I wish well and try and point them in the right direction. For others, it’s blatant economics. If they’re Indian, they think they can get a scholarship, a check, oil money, gambling money, or something free they think Indians get. For some, it’s something lacking in their own bland lives that by saying they’re Indians would make them special. Indians are cool, and if I’m Indian, then I’m cool. For others it is a spiritual thing. They see Indians as “special” people who have some mystical knowledge or skills that make them at one with nature. I don’t know about that, but Indians are people with all the good and the bad that goes into being human. Still, it’s easy to understand the pull of wanting to be Indian. After all, most of us associate admirable characteristics with Indians, such as bravery, independence, and spirituality. But in reality, this is not what makes Native American special. It is their history. They have a history unlike European Americans or African Americans. And there is power in history.